Considering that volcanic ash has hurt Hollywood’s presence at the London Book Fair, should it be a surprise that the one book that has the movie crowd excited has a cloud over its rights? Most studios stayed away from London, with Universal, MGM and Warner Bros/New Line grounded. The scouts that made it over are buzzing about by Unbroken, the long-awaited new book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand that will be published later this year by Random House. Overseas rights are being hustled at London for Hillenbrand’s book about the remarkable life of Lou Zamperini.
A track star who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Zamperini joined the Air Force in WWII. After surviving a plane crash in the Pacific, he and another soldier spent 47 days adrift, nearly starving before they were captured by the Japanese navy. It gets worse. Zamperini was taken prisoner and was targeted for abuse by a cruel and sadistic guard determined to break Zamperini with a relentless campaign of torture and humiliation. Zamperini not only survived, he later embraced religion and forgave his tormentors.
With all the young actors committing to comic book movies but looking for a role that will really show their chops, Hillenbrand’s Zamperini tale ought to be the exact thing to liven up a sluggish book-to-film marketplace. Not so fast.
It can only really be made at Universal, which has been developing a movie–since 1957! At that time, Zamperini sold his life rights to the studio, along with his own memoir, Devil at My Heels. Tony Curtis, who was then an up and coming star, wanted to play Zamperini, and the studio worked on a script while he left for Europe to star for Stanley Kubrick in Spartacus. By the time the slave rebellion was quelled, Curtis returned, but nobody liked the script and the project got shelved.
The film got a resurgence after Zamperini carried the Olympic Torch for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. CBS broadcast a terrific segment on Zamperini, even tracking down his tormentor and arranging for a reunion where Zamperini was prepared to forgive–the guard was interviewed, but declined to meet Zamperini on camera.
Nicolas Cage became aware, and his then-managers at Brillstein-Grey got the project going for him with director Antoine Fuqua. Robert Schenkkan wrote a script and Neil Tolkin did a rewrite, to no avail. While Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson were among those who showed interest over the years, four regimes have come and gone at Universal, and still the 93-year old Zamperini waits.
Matthew Baer, who ran B-G’s film division, has continued to push the project as producer. Because of Universal’s rights deal with Zamperini, he actually thinks that Hillenbrand’s book might help the film get made rather than surface as a rival project. CAA is repping Unbroken, and the hope is to make a deal at Universal and fold it into the rights package, though approaches so far have been too pricey for a studio that basically owns the story already.
Still, the author has a good relationship with the studio that turned Seabiscuit into a memorable film, and Baer hopes the attention that the book will give Zamperini’s story will draw the young actor and filmmaker the movie needs to finally happen. Of course, Universal has had a rough run with dramas lately and the studio can always let the project go elsewhere if this attempt doesn’t pan. After all, 53 years should be ample time to develop and make a movie, which, in Zamperini’s original 1957 short-form contract, was called a “photoplay.”